By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 26 December 2018
When it comes to Apocalypse World, I haven’t had anything that really made me say “Wow,” outside of “Wow, I can’t believe I bought this book.” I picked up Dungeon World a few years back at the suggestion of a friend, and I just hated the way it felt. When I tried other games like it, including Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy, I just couldn’t really jive with the way it worked.
Once I got to hearing about City of Mist, I have to admit that my interest was piqued, but seeing the words “Powered by the Apocalypse” anywhere near it really quashed my interests, and I put it on the backburner to better focus on getting timely reviews written here.
Then I heard about the Kickstarter for a new edition and expansion, had the chance to look at some of the materials, and decided to support this new edition with hopes that it would turn out to be worth my time and money.
The City is full of dangers, cold cases, crimes, and unsolved mysteries.
And you are one of them.
In City of Mist, you play a Rift, a normal human gifted with the power of a Mythos, a legend of the past. Of course, it’s not simply being granted all of the power of might of that legend; there’s a force known only as the Mist that tries to subdue the knowledge of your legend. You have some memories and a glimmer of power, but no one will believe you when you tell them.
So what will you do? Will you go and embrace your power, solve the various mysteries brought before you (your own and those from others), and eventually leave your mortality behind, or will you go back to watching your television and keep your head down until death finally arrives?
==What You Get==
City of Mist is currently split between two rulebooks: a “Player’s Guide” and an “MC’s Toolkit.” The PDF of the Player’s Guide weighs in at 304 pages, while the MC’s Toolkit totals 247 pages. The original rulebook came in at 510 pages, meaning we should have some extra content here.
Within the Player’s Guide, players have everything they need to get started to play the game: a quick rundown of what to expect with the setting (about 20 pages), with the rules to create (120~ish pages), play (80~ish pages), and develop (under 60 pages) your character. Each chapter opens up with a short comic fitting for the universe, usually just a couple of pages, before jumping into the topic.
In all honesty, I jumped at this because of the premise. As I mentioned in my reviews of Scion and Part-Time Gods, I am a sucker for mythology, and the way the setting is portrayed just works for me. It’s very much epic mythology meets film noir and adds a heavy dose of modern supernatural, and that leads to an aesthetic I can live for.
As I read this, my mind started making allusions to the TV Series Once Upon A Time, the Fables comics, the Dresden Files and Nightside Chronicles novels, and a chunk of work by Neil Gaiman (especially Neverwhere and American Gods). We have the grit, fantasy, and that line between power and mortality, and again, I’m living for that.
With that in mind, I have to talk about the overall setting. At first, I was a bit worried; the entire games takes place in a vaguely described place called The City. That’s it; a megalopolis without a name and a few vague descriptors.
Which, oddly enough, adds to its appeal.
You can make The City into what you want. It can be a reskinned version of your town, just with more crime and mystery. You can combine elements of modern Chicago with 1930s New York with a splash of 1950’s L.A., and then neon-noir the whole thing. The book gives examples of how to build The City in the way that works for you, and it does this by giving examples, themes, and suggestions. While it’s vague at times and requires the group to do a bit of work to get started, it gives enough general information that is easy to grok for anyone who’s ever set foot in an urban area.
With that in mind, I do want to add that the game is a bit more flexible with regards to how The City works. While the game is designed with The City as a backdrop, there’s still more flexibility for it; you can use the game and be jet-setting psuedo-deities like in Scion (albeit with a setting tweak), but you aren’t directly mechanically penalized for leaving your home turf like you would be in Part-Time Gods. It still has flaws, but I found that some of the design elements here were more flexible in some ways than the previously mentioned games. Plus, unlike those games, you aren’t a god, but rather a legend; anything goes at that point.
While I tend to be harsh on games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, I do have to say that I enjoy the way character creation is handled in City of Mist. Instead of using “classic” stats and numbers, characters are built using “tags.” Each tag comes about by answering a question posed to you regarding where that tag came from; if it’s about possessions, the tag will talk about what makes the item different, but if it’s about a facet of your Legend, the question may make you address the sort of power you have. Progress also works in the same way: pick another question and provide an answer to create your tag.
Overall, the narrative elements of the game are appealing to me, and with the Q&A approach, I think it helps players get a better feel for how characters not only function regarding their capabilities, but also as people. This also bleeds over into character progression, as becoming more attuned to your Mythos or to your mundane life each carry their own weight and appeal to be explored and expanded upon, in addition to the expected mechanical changes.
Finally, I have to say I really dig the art. It’s done up in a very gritty, noir-inspired comic style that is not only aesthetically enjoyable to look at, but it works. Even the subtle touches, like random coffee stains, or bloody handprints, or the various design touches that show a newspaper clipping feel to some pages are just well done. This book has aesthetic nailed down, and I love it.
One of the gripes I have, personally, is the cost of getting what you need to play this game. Most recent releases for RPGs run around $60, but you have everything you need to run the game within one rulebook. Games that split like this start to get a little cost prohibitive after a while, especially when new content is coming out. To get started in City of Mist, you will be dropping $90 if you go for the dead-tree edition. While it’s about half the price of D&D for GMs that are just getting started, it’s still an issue I raise with similar products (like Scion), especially since this is a split version of the previous, one-volume hardcover, and you are paying $90 for 551 pages.
In all honesty, I’m not entirely sold on the overall game mechanics. Like I noted with my review of Blades in the Dark, I have a love/hate relationship with games that utilize “playbook” methods for actions. On one hand, it’s great for people who suffer from decision paralysis, as it helps with determining available actions as well as what the character is and what each type of character is capable of. At the same time, it also causes its own collection of issues, including a form of decision paralysis. by trying to find ways to cram your own action into one of the “Moves” permitted by the game. These also tend to make character growth a bit limited, as options will revolve around the playbook options on your character sheet.
The difficulty range is also something I’m still waffling on. Like fellow Apocalypse-based Blades in the Dark, the GM doesn’t roll dice, but rather the PCs announce their action, modifiers are determined (including any perks the opposition might have), and then 2d6 are rolled. The goal is to have a value that beats a 7, preferably beating a 10, as that 7-9 range causes penalties tacked on to your success. It’s still balanced, per se, but my experience has shown that unless you have enough going for you in your crunch, failure is going to be more common than not. In fact, the examples of play presented in the game often show that a character with a narrow focus is going to have a much better chance of success, and someone with broad focuses isn’t really going to be that well off (especially with any sort of real opposition). It’s one of the things that turned me off of d20, honestly, and I haven’t found an Apocalypse World game that’s made me feel confident in utilizing the tags system in the long run. As much as I love the idea in theory, I’m not a fan of the implementation.
On more of a writing note, I do think that the way sample characters are handled could be a bit better. We are given the step-by-step process of making a character by the creation of a modern-day Don Quixote, and we know all of his personality notes as well as potential advancements, but when it comes to the pre-generated characters, we aren’t given much to work with beyond some powers; no personality, no hints as to what actually empowers them, where the legends are from, nothing. Considering that these characters also appear in the comics, it would be nice to know more. If you’re curious, the characters are Enkidu (named after the once foe and long time friend of Gilgamesh; only appears in the comic strips), Kitsune (named after the kitsune of Japanese folklore), Salamander (named after the fire spirit), Excalibur (a woman named after Arthur’s sword; she possesses a bracelet that turns into any weapon), and L’Estrange (a man who works in dreams; I can’t track anything else down on the name). There’s also a pregen named Flicker that has space/time powers, but I can’t determine which myth she is based off of. Considering my backgrounds, if I’m struggling, I can only imagine what someone without my experience in world mythology and resources is going through.
Finally, I’m not entirely sold on the MC Toolkit as a stand-alone product. The core rulebook covers exactly that: what you need to play. Beyond that, the MC Toolkit is supposed to fill in the gaps, but it feels more like a mix of a setting book (about 40 pages of details to flesh out The City as the creators envisioned), an adventure (about 20 pages), “Dangers” (previously introduced NPCs and a bestiary of sorts), and general GM tips (scenes, how to run a game, etc). The most appealing part of this, to me, was the section on Custom Moves, but even that wasn’t entirely worth it for me. It’s great for a completionist or someone that is new to GMing, but it’s otherwise lackluster for anyone that’s been gaming for a while.
After much soul searching and arguing with my legendary Mythos side, I’d have to leave City of Mists with 3 Buns.
As a setting, I adore what’s happening in this game, and with the tag system, the narrative elements really allow you to bring a spin to some of your favorite legends. The artwork is solid and fits the theme and moods, the book is well laid out, and the setting provided is specific enough to be interesting, but generic enough to be readily adapted by anyone for alternative (but related) game ideas.
Sadly, the game suffers due to odd mechanical elements of Apocalypse World, which is a turnoff for me, especially when coupled with some of the vague sections where setting and mechanics blend. The splitting of the book between a player and GM book is also odd, as the GM book doesn’t really bring enough to the table to warrant the purchase of it unless you are new to running games.
If you are a fan of urban noir, modern-age fantasy, legends and folklore, and couldn’t find your groove with either Scion or Part-Time Gods, you can’t go wrong with picking up City of Mist. If you dislike Apocalypse World mechanics or anything else I just said in the previous sentence, you’ll want to give this a pass. I stand by my statement that the MC’s Toolkit will only be worthwhile for new gamers.
City of Mist is published by Son of Oak Studio, and can be pre-ordered from their webstore. The Player’s Guide and MC’s Toolkit are $44.95 each, but are on sale as of this writing for $39.95, and will include PDF copies of the books purchased. The PDFs are $24.95 each, but are currently on sale for $19.95 each. Print copies of the book have an estimated arrival time of March 2019, but PDFs are already available.